We need to talk about what happened at the Eurovision Song Contest last week.
I haven’t seen Eurovision for twenty years so watching it on Saturday was quite bizarre. First off when did Eurovision get so dark? I remember brightly coloured costumes adorning Europe’s worst pop stars singing cheesy catchy tunes atop neon pink, tangerine orange and lime green sets. You can understand my surprise when I found myself staring at a darkened stage covered in pyrotechnics, moving platforms, bridges and stairs, some of which were on fire. It was like some weird hybrid of X-factor meets the Hunger Games with at least 50% of the acts doing Viking-like tributes to Game of Thrones.
If I didn’t know any better I’d say we were a continent on the brink of some dystopian nuclear war.
2018 has apparently amped up the stakes for this traditionally camp song contest that although claims to be European includes countries like Australia and Israel. The singing was OK, microphone technique less than adequate however it was vaguely entertaining. I shared a few giggles with the people that made me watch it and learned that Moldova is a country.
Then Israel came on.
I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. Is an Israeli woman really singing about diversity and equality while dressed up as an East Asian on live TV? The irony here is astounding in the most blatant Yellowface so far this year. What the hell is going on? If a Minstrel tried to go on BBC1 at 8 o clock on a Saturday night I’m sure someone would stop them. Maybe this is just the beginning of Brexit Britain. What’s next? Benefit-baiting? Hunt the immigrant? Food bank Bingo?
Yellowface has been described as the last socially acceptable form of racism that for some reason people have a real problem admitting to, addressing and abolishing. Even in 2018 the East Asian community seems to be, more often than not, the butt of cruel but somehow less taboo jokes. How many people still call the Chinese takeaway the chinky? Or quote ‘me love you long time’ from Full Metal Jacket as a joke to their Asian friends? Interestingly I can’t imagine these same people saying the word ‘nigger’ out loud in the middle of Hackney.
Doctor Who historically cast a white actor as a Chinese man in ‘The Talons of Weing Chang’ dressing him up to look East Asian, Snapchat famously faced a backlash in 2016 after introducing a filter that changed the features of a persons face to make them look more East Asian and quickly removed it. Whitewashing is standard in traditionally East Asian roles; Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange and Matt Damon in The Great Wall are two recent examples of this. Racial stereotypes live on in the UK film and television industry so if you do see an East Asian actor on screen they are likely to be cast as a Doctor or takeaway owner and more often than not asked to speak ‘more Asian’. This is not a new issue but one that is finally getting more air time.
Hence my surprise at Netta Barzilai’s performance this Eurovision. Yellowface had hit the mainstream and not only was it broadcast unchallenged, unlike the two male dancers holding hands in Irelands’ song, it actually won. It turns out I was not the only person to notice and Twitter was awash with calls of ‘she’s racist’ provoking the response of ‘oh no she’s not’ followed by furiously hitting the block button.
I’m so glad we’ve learned to discuss such important issues in an intelligent and sensitive way.
I decided to try and see this scenario from both sides. My first question was: Is Netta of Japanese heritage and expressing her clearly quirky nature in the adornments of her ancestors? But then I thought does that really matter? To ask the question would imply that only people of East Asian heritage should wear clothes or make-up inspired by that culture. I own a Kimono, does that count as Yellowface? Can we stipulate that people of different cultures should not be free to experiment with other cultures traditional garments? Can an Englishman wear a kilt? Can a Canadian wear a Sari? Can a man wear a dress? This is where the water turns murky. On one hand you could say that by deliberately trying to look Japanese she was being offensive because she is obviously not Japanese but on the other is she merely expressing an affinity to or love of that culture by choosing to dress that way and is there anything wrong with that?
And herein lies the problem.
Netta didn’t cause offence because she was portraying a derogatory image of people of East Asian heritage but because by dressing the way she did, in the make-up that she wore she was endorsing a stereotype. A stereotype that dehumanises and immediately categorises people of East Asian descent. The strange voice and sounds she used could have been a nod to that stereotype or an unfortunate accident. Either way the use of this caricature is out of date. The song would have been just as successful without the Maneki-neko cats everywhere, the strange faces made by the backing dances and the costumes straight out of Pokemon: incidentally the video for the song doesn’t contain so many extreme references. Maybe she was trying to use her choice of vibrant and international style to express diversity. Unfortunately a strong message about feminism and freedom of expression was lost when she bypassed multiformity by displaying another culture as merely a fashion.
It is not unusual for people to adopt customs, fashions and ideals from other places. We are a developing people that mostly move freely around this world. But some go further and assume new identities within cultures that are outwardly perceived as richer, more interesting or simply different to their own. Is this what Netta is doing? Israel is famous for having a controversial racial history, presently living through a modern day apartheid that is frequently criticised and protested across the globe. Is she distancing herself from this painful part of Israeli culture by adopting a new one?
She wouldn’t be the first. Rachel Delozal, famously described as the epitomy of white privilege, was accepted as a light-skinned African American woman in the city of Spokane where she led Black Lives Matter protests and was the head of the NAACP. She was high profile and received accolades and media attention for her work until one day a reporter asked her live on Television if she was in fact African American.
She is not and answered the question by walking away.
Netflix documentary ‘The Rachel Divide’ probes Rachel’s dogged attachment to this creed. It shows that as a result of an abusive upbringing she assumed the racial identity of her adoptive siblings and has convinced herself that she is internally black claiming publicly that race can be fluid. That hit a nerve. In America, where race equality in some communities is seemingly non-existent, Rachel’s claim to ‘blackness’ has disturbed generations of collective pain and defensive offended tempers have flared.
Rachel is unique in the sense that despite huge public attack she refuses to relent. Her continuing open and genetically false claim to African American heritage despite her white birth parents speaking out shows a deep-rooted resistance to where she actually comes from. Netta did not go on stage claiming to be Japanese, she sang proudly for Israel while stealing from Japanese culture that she is reportedly a great fan of. What connects these women is a an independent empowerment to decide which culture they wish to display but also a disregard for the ethical question of whether they should be displaying it at all; a trait inherent in white privilege.
As we progress into an ever-changing, diversifying and culturally merging world we must leave behind old-fashioned stereotypes. Gender fluidity is becoming more accepted but racial fluidity although raising similar questions is not something the world is necessarily ready for. While racial stereotypes are still regularly enforced and hierarchies of colour supported we remain culturally stuck in the mud. Who we identify as shouldn’t matter but self acceptance must come first. We cannot progress individually or collectively without addressing the pain in our past and rectifying our present mistakes. We must respect historical wounds, show sensitivity to others in the healing of this damage and be able to learn from and apologise for our own mistakes; only then can we truly move forward and in a world still lacking in equality we have a way to go yet.
Do I think that Netta’s choice of outfit was an intentionally racist slant? No. Do I think she should have chosen her set, costume and make up design more sensitively? Yes. Will I be watching Eurovision again next year? Absolutely not.
Janna Fox is an actress, writer, yogi, aerialist in training and creator of many things. She started blogging for The New Establishment in February 2017 and her pieces are published every other Wednesday. Janna also contributes to sex blog Hitting the Spot. For more information please visit www.jannafox.com